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Mennonites and the Holocaust

3.1. 2012 4,143 Times read

From collaboration to perpetration

We are publishing a 4,000-word article for the first time because the subject is so disquieting: Mennonites helping kill Jews and Communists during the Holocaust.

“Many Mennonite survivors of the Stalinist terror and anti-kulak and deportation campaigns expressed virulent hatred for both Jews and Communists as equivalent evils,” says Gerhard Rempel in his article.

“The Holocaust has not been fully examined as part of Mennonite history either in Russia or in Europe as a whole,” Rempel says.—Editor

Rempel_GerhardAs the final tragic event in the concluding phase of the Mennonite sojourn in Russia, the Holocaust has not been fully examined as part of Mennonite history either in Russia or in Europe as a whole. The roots of that story begin with the painful events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war. Driven by fear and violent anarchists, many Mennonites in South Russia set aside their pacifist tradition and formed self-defense units to protect their homes and families against bandits and even the Red Army.

Since many had earlier joined the counterrevolutionary forces of former tsarist generals, Mennonites now found themselves on the losing side of the conflict as enemies of the new communist government. In 1928, in an effort to contain threats to his policies, Stalin introduced a fierce collectivization and industrialization campaign enforced by deportation, which tore apart Mennonite colonies and broke up nearly every family by sending fathers and sons into prisons in the far north gulag.

The 1930s were a time of famine and terror. Policies of oppression, especially against religious groups, brought Mennonite settlements to a point of annihilation and destruction, at least for those who could not emigrate in 1929. The Great Terror, as the period was known, affected every Mennonite household and brought their identity as a distinct religious and ethnic group into question.

By the mid-1930s, the public expression of religion and the physical existence of the Mennonite church in Russia had been nearly erased. Young people in particular were vulnerable not only to the spreading atheism but to a moral and lawless indifference to the inner voice of conscience and restraint. A decade later, this trend blinded many to the inherent evil of the carriers of National Socialism who came to Communist Russia in German uniforms as purported liberators.

Mennonites and the Stutthof concentration camp

The Stutthof concentration camp, located near Danzig, was established in 1939 by the Waffen-SS, an armed unit of the Nazi Party under the direct control of Heinrich Himmler. Since Danzig was an early stronghold in the Nazi revolution, some 6,000 members of the SS were stationed there as early as 1933.

Eventually, the Stutthof complex included over 200 outlying camps and external commando units. Among its victims were prisoners from 25 different countries. Many of the prisoners were Jewish. During their incarceration amid appalling sanitary conditions, prisoners suffered malnutrition, disease, and mental and physical torture.

Victims died as a result of the living conditions and the slave-like work; they were also executed by shooting, hanging, gassing, lethal injection, beatings and torture. In June 1944, nearly a year before its liberation on May 9, 1945, by troops of the Soviet Army, Stutthof was converted from a slave labor camp to an extermination center with outdoor furnaces constructed to dispose of corpses.

At the time of the war, Danzig and its environs was home to more Mennonites than any other place in the world. Some 56 Mennonite families lived in the small village of Stutthof itself, and Mennonite names show up in the records as closely associated with the prison camp.

Mennonites also served as guards outside the central camp. The worst characters were from Germany, among them two Mennonites. One was SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Janzen, who served as Blockführer and leader of the labor detachment. The other, Heinz Löwen, was one of the few guards actually tried after the war in Danzig and given a relatively light sentence of five years.

Another likely Mennonite, a man named Schröder, was one of 20 SS guards notorious for their brutal treatment of 1,000 Jewish women assigned, among other tasks, to build dykes and bring in the beet harvest. Most of the women were shot outright when they could no longer work. Schröder, the SS guard, was tried after the war for murder, along with a number of his colleagues, but the case was dismissed because the accused could not be interviewed.

At least one woman, possibly a Mennonite, also participated in this ghastly business. Emilie Harms served as a work supervisor of young Jewish inmates from the Groß-Rosen concentration camp. While some of the women below her behaved brutally, there is no evidence of any complaints against Harms herself.

In addition to the direct involvement of Mennonites as guards, Mennonite farmers and businessmen exploited the available inexpensive labor provided by Stutthof prisoners, without any apparent moral compunction. Since Stutthof was largely a slave labor camp for much of its history, the Mennonite connection became important in terms of economic interests.

A Mennonite builder, Gerhard Epp, not only leased 300 Jewish slave laborers at Stutthof to build a new factory near the camp but also served as a general contractor to the SS in assuming responsibility for the construction of all buildings on the premises. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that a Mennonite built the barracks for the first concentration camp on non-German soil. Even more Mennonites were implicated in the forced labor operations of Stutthof in the approximately 200 outlying camps and special purpose work commands related to the Stutthof concentration camp system.

SS-Scharführer Fritz Friese, the Mennonite owner of the largest estate in the Grenzdorf B area, was a member of the General SS and an even more vicious offender. Friese personally selected the fieldworkers from his camp inmates and worked them so ferociously that he was known as the “Lord of Death and Life.”

Unfortunately, Fritz Friese had imitators elsewhere. A Mennonite farmer named Otto Froese received a contingent of inmate workers from the camp at Störbuderkampe, but the guard who came with them was unsatisfactory to Froese, who had him replaced with a tougher character.

A story recounted by Werner Klaassen from the Mennonite village of Tiege illustrates the more typical attitude of Mennonite farmers. In 1943 or 1944, a freight car from Stutthof took 120 female prison inmates to Tiege and scattered them among various farms to help bring in the oil seed rape harvest by the use of the old-fashioned sickle. Each group of workers had a concentration camp Kapo as guard and disciplinarian. In this case the Kapo was a German Jew who promptly informed the farmers that there was to be no socializing or common meals with the inmate workers. When Klaassen’s father gave the workers breakfast before they were sent out to the fields, a huge argument ensued. The Kapo threatened to send Klaassen himself to the camp or at least receive no more workers if he insisted on his friendly treatment of the workers. When the Kapo beat a woman who had taken a brief rest in the shade of a tree, Klaassen complained and was told this was none of his business. Although some Mennonites are likely to tell the story to emphasize Klaassen’s kindness, this confirms that this was slave labor pure and simple.

The “massacre at Zaporozhia”

In the years following the war, some Mennonite World War II veterans were accused of war crimes and prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department and its Canadian counterpart. Several Mennonite memoir writers and non-Mennonite historians have provided further evidence that individuals of Mennonite background were part of Himmler’s machinery of death, including the notorious Einsatzgruppen, operating as
killing squads behind the German lines in Ukraine and other parts of occupied Russia.

In early April 1944, John Kroeker, errant son of a beloved Mennonite writer and theologian, was meeting two German soldiers—Heinrich Janzen of the SS and Peter Dietrich Wiebe, who had just arrived from Litzmannstadt—shortly before he embarked on a trip to the Warthegau. Janzen had served “under the death head”—a euphemism for the Waffen-SS—and had a remarkable tale to tell about his recent experiences. Starting east of the Mennonite settlement of Zaporozhia in the Ukraine and moving all the way to the Warthegau in Poland, Janzen and his fellow SS soldiers traveled for three months.

Their job was to “clean out” the Ukrainian localities near the front and remove the Russian partisans. The SS men visited homes at 5 a.m. and ordered everyone out of the locality by 8. The military unit then forcefully removed all those who were still there at that time, especially since many seem to have frozen in place “when they saw the sign of the death head on the uniforms.” The troops had standing orders to shoot (“give them the bullet”) anyone who showed the least bit of resistance.

Nearly all the Mennonite individuals I encountered in my research also mentioned treatment of Jews in their experience. Some tried to explain the nature of atrocities they observed or heard about from those that did. The most honest and conscience-stricken was probably the Mennonite teacher Anna Sudermann, who had attended a secondary school of commerce largely populated by young Jewish women. Sudermann described the upheaval and her regret:

“One day we saw how Jews, about 50 men, women and children, were marched down the street. They were all shot outside the village, including half-Jews. A Russian mother with her half-Jewish child is supposed to have gone along with the child to her death. The rural constabulary was ordered to carry out these actions.

… under the Soviet regime we lived through a great deal of inhumanity and also were aware of the prominence of Jews in the economic and political life of the country. At the top of the GPU we noticed many Jews and the interrogating judges were also Jews. Millions of people disappeared and died in the ‘silent camps.’ We knew what life was like in a totalitarian state. Our concepts of law and justice had been confused. In Germany we saw the opposite of Soviet Russia, that is to say something better. At that time we still revered Hitler. If he had decided upon such a solution of the Jewish question, then the Jews apparently were endangering the political security of Germany. In this manner I tried to justify the inhuman treatment of Jews. In this lies my great guilt, which cannot be expiated by any means. I can only hope for forgiving mercy. It is not particularly easy to confess this guilt. I see this admission in my memoir as a kind of public confessional, at least on paper.”

In 1984, the year before his death, Alexander Rempel, son of a prominent Mennonite bishop who disappeared in Stalin’s Gulag and a relative of Sudermann, wrote a jumbled letter, couched in the form of a research article, addressed to the archivists at the Winnipeg Mennonite Heritage Center. In it, Rempel revealed what he called the “Massacre of Zaporozhia” with Mennonite participants as perpetrators, and he charged Mennonite leaders with a conspiracy of silence.

The massacre occurred in the region of Chortitza, the Mennonite capital of the Old Colony on the Dnieper River. Historian Michael Gesin in “Holocaust: The Reality of Genocide in Southern Ukraine” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2003) has provided a succinct overview of the events:

“When in October 1941, the Germans occupied the city of Zaporozhe itself, they immediately ordered the Jews to form their own government of 10 German-speaking people to whom they would transfer all future orders. The next day, the registration of all Jews in the city began. All Jews were ordered to wear on their left arm a Star of David sewn with yellow thread onto a white band. At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, 150 Jews were ordered to gather in the center of town to be transported to their new workplace. On Jan. 3, 1942, they were all killed. After this event, the procedure became more orderly, with the killing of thousands within a month. On March 29, 1942, all the remaining Jews were ordered to stay home and await further instructions. They were told to take clothing and food to last for three weeks for their resettlement in Melitopol, and at 10 a.m., the process of herding Jews into the police headquarters began. On April 1, they were all transferred to the outskirts of the city and shot. Over time, all the remaining Jews were killed, whenever and wherever they were found. The killings continued until the autumn of 1943. In all, more than 44,000 Jews were murdered in the Zaporozhe oblast.”

In the current spate of Holocaust research in the area of the Black Sea, new evidence has emerged that confirms Rempel’s accusations that Mennonites participated in significant ways in the massacre at Zaporozhia and in other Holocaust atrocities in the region.

Shortly after Oct. 4, 1941, both Old Zaporozhia and Novo Zaporazhia, including Chortitza, were firmly in the hands of Mennonite administrators, appointed by the Wehrmacht. In Old Zaporozhia, Heinrich Jakob Wiebe, a bookkeeper and veteran administrator from Bolshevik times, was firmly in control, having staffed his administration with fellow Mennonites and reliable Ukrainian and Russian allies. Isaac Johann Reimer was put in charge of Novo Zaporozhia. Both were subordinate to a city commandant supplied by the Wehrmacht, since this front line area was still under army jurisdiction and not German civilian control.

Both Wiebe and Reimer responded directly to the “Jewish question” by compelling all remaining Jews to wear the infamous armband with the Star of David. When asked by the Wehrmacht security division inspector about the Jewish situation, the Mennonite mayors and their subordinates were utterly circumspect, virtually admitting that since most Jews had been killed recently there was no problem with the remnants—100 in Novo Zaporozhia held in a ghetto and 4,000 Keraims in the old city. The Keraims, a Jewish sect, were exempt from the massacre by official order from SS headquarters in Berlin. Since the mayors spoke to inspectors only two weeks after the first massacre, it can be assumed that both were fully aware of the ongoing Holocaust and knew Mennonites as auxiliary policemen were involved in the killings.

Victor Klets, a graduate student at the University of Dnepropetrovsk, has identified three Mennonite men who were members of the local gendarmerie, frequently used as executioners in the Holocaust: Ivan Frantsevich Jantsen of Dnepropetrovsk; Peter Jakovlevich Penner of Novo-Vitebsk, who served as a policeman in Friesendorf, then in the gendarmerie in Pyatikhatkakh; and Peter Frantsevich Dick, a member of the German gendarmerie of Orlovo in the Nikolayev region who, according to a witness, “beat up Soviet citizens and transported them to the shooting site.” Klets also found a native of Chortitza named Wiens who served as chief of the Dnepropetrovsk Schutzpolizei school that supplied guards for the concentration camp of the city. The names of these men were extracted from the so-called “infiltration files” not readily available to Western scholars and may only indicate the tip of the iceberg in terms of Mennonite involvement with the Holocaust.

Jack Reimer and the art of survival by metamorphosis

On Aug. 12, 1998, the U.S. Justice Department brought an early war crimes case against Jack Reimer, a Russian Mennonite born in the Molotschna town of Halbstadt, then living in Carmel, N.Y. The charges focused on Reimer’s dishonesty about his wartime activities in order to get past immigration officials. According to the charges, Reimer “was captured by the Germans in the summer of 1941 and kept in a prisoner-of-war camp where at least a truckload of soldiers a day died from the cold or starvation. Being of German descent, he was transferred to the SS Training Camp at Trawniki, Poland, where he allegedly helped train men whose job it was to assist the SS in killing European Jews.”

Reimer was accused of having taken part in the mass murder of a group of Jewish prisoners in the woods near the camp while at Trawniki in the winter of 1941-1942.

The Reimer case illustrates an important aspect of these Mennonite perpetrators and participants in the Holocaust—the tension between the demands of survival and the tug of a moral conscience below the surface embedded in the Mennonite heritage and religious upbringing. Eric C. Steinhart probes Reimer’s motivations and suggests he was compelled by circumstances to metamorphose in order to fit into every new environment. By becoming nearly invisible, he survived, thanks to his chameleonic malleability. Mennonites and others cultivated this talent as members of a “mobilized ethnic diaspora.”

According to Steinhart, Reimer thrived in his new role: “Between the spring of 1942 and early 1943, Reimer took part in the deportation of Jews … to death camp(s) … [and] helped in the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. … [He] was implicated in the mass shooting of Jews. … Reimer and several other Volksdeutsche NCOs led a group of 20 to 30 Wachmänner on an operation to murder Jews… [in a] wooded location some 15 kilometers from the edge of Lublin. [He] escorted small groups of Jews to a shooting pit, [where] … SS officers and Volksdeutsche NCOs, including Reimer, clubbed their 200 to 300 victims into a mass grave and gunned them down at close range with submachine guns.”

In 2005, the U.S Court of Appeals determined that Reimer had misrepresented his background in war crime episodes, and he was officially deported. Before he could be extradited, however, Reimer died at the age of 86.

Heinrich Wiens and the massacre at the glass factory

Recent study has revealed another, even more shocking, account of war crimes committed by the son of a prosperous Russian Mennonite farmer and merchant. Heinrich Wiens was born on March 22, 1906, in the village of Muntau in the South Russian Mennonite settlement of Molochna. Between 1926 and 1930, he appears to have been trained and employed as a dairy inspector in various localities in the Ukraine, leaving for Danzig in 1930 with the goal of starting his own “association of dairy inspectors.”

Within a year, Wiens joined the Nazi Party in Danzig and received a low membership number (633,222), dated Jan. 10, 1931, the year after the first electoral success of the National Socialists in the Reichstag and various provinces. On Jan. 12, 1931, he also joined the SS (membership number 22,914) followed by a fairly rapid rise in rank from staff sergeant in 1933 to captain in April 1939. At some point after 1931, he left the Mennonite church, or at least he told the SS ideological watchdogs that he had canceled his membership.

As soon as the war began, he served in SD units in the occupied eastern territories. In November 1941, about the same time Mennonites were being recruited as auxiliary policemen, “SS captain Heinrich Wiens of Muntau in the Molochna” was leading a section of Einsatzkommando 10a for Einsatzgruppe D in Simferopol.

At some point in the summer of 1942, Wiens was transferred to EK 12, another subunit of Einsatzgruppe D, and given more leeway in organizing his own killing operations. Soon after their arrival at the end of August 1942, EK 12 dealt with the Jewish population of Pjatigorsk and neighboring towns in the “established manner,” according to their “resettlement” procedures. For his tasks Wiens had the advantage of using “gas vans,” newly arrived from the manufacturer of “murder implements” in Berlin.

After several weeks of forced labor, the Jewish population was ordered to assemble early in the morning of Sept. 7, 1942, at the railroad freight depot for immediate “resettlement to sparsely populated areas of Ukraine.”

The train stopped at a large tank trap, which Wiens had personally selected as the appropriate place for the massacre. The method of execution was the same as it had been for the Jews of Pjatigorsk. Around 50 Jews at a time were forced into the gas van, which then drove around the field until all the passengers had been asphyxiated by the carbon monoxide piped into the van via a grate on the floor of the truck bed. The van then stopped at the edge of the tank trap, and other Jewish prisoners were compelled to pull the bodies out of the van and throw them into the ditch.

Following the massacre of the Jews of Kislovodsk, Wiens’ EK 12 team members moved on to “deal with” the Jewish population of the town of Jessentuki and other resorts. Already on Aug. 11, 1942, the Wehrmacht commandant of Jessentuki, Oberstleutnant von Beck, had anticipated the work of EK 12 by forming a “Jewish committee” in the town and used it to register and rob the Jewish families of any valuable possessions. Shortly thereafter, 1,500 Jews from Jessentuki joined the Jews of Kislovodsk in the mass grave at the glass factory. A similar fate awaited the Jews of Georgijevsk, who were driven to the place of execution by a particularly brutal detachment of Caucasian auxiliaries employed by the leadership of EK 12.

The massive grave at Mineralnyne Vody near the former Mennonite settlements of Templehof, Suvorovka, Olgino and Terek remains forever associated with the name of Heinrich Wiens.

Conclusion

What might have motivated these genocidal deeds of Mennonites such as Jack Reimer, Heinrich Wiens and other less-well-known cohorts, such as the dozen or more volunteers who, according to Alexander Rempel, joined as SD auxiliaries in the massacre of Zaporozhia? The Lutheran from Katharinendorf appears to have joined the killer group out of sheer idleness and boredom. Others probably found attractive the idea of exercising power—in uniform and with a gun—over their perceived enemies.

Mennonites who had survived the Stalinist purges were strongly inclined to admire Hitler, the anti-Stalin, and were often willing to join any Nazi organization as a kind of reflexive, passionate action. Much the same motivation was undoubtedly behind the comparatively large number of Mennonite volunteers for the Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht as well as their participation in various police forces.

Many Mennonite survivors of the Stalinist terror and anti-kulak and deportation campaigns expressed virulent hatred for both Jews and Communists as equivalent evils. Mennonites generally resented, envied and despised Jews because so many of them seem to have been found in the ranks of the Soviet secret police and the Communist party cadre as well as among the supervisors and managers of collective farms and local government agencies. Anna Sudermann, for example, reported that she encountered them all too frequently in the judicial system, in the role of interrogating judges and states attorney and police chiefs.

Hence, it was easy to regard Jews as part of the Soviet class enemy on whom raw revenge could now be exacted under the guise of official “police” work, since few Mennonites were probably keen enough to distinguish between normal policing and outright murder committed under the auspices of the Einsatzkommando. But how they ultimately justified their actions of murder against innocent civilians, women and children among them, is a dark mystery that cries out for a deeper explanation.

If Jack Reimer became a perpetrator in the Holocaust in order to survive, Heinrich Wiens did it to advance his lifetime career in the SS.

What are we to make of the Mennonite mayors of Zaporozhia and Novo Zaporozhia, as well as Chortitza or Osterwick, all of them appointed by the Wehrmacht, who were in power when the massacre at Zaporozhia took place? They stand at the top of hundreds of Mennonites who joined the German Army or worked for a host of German-Nazi agencies. They could not deny they were at least witnesses to or observers of the Holocaust. But how much responsibility or guilt should they have to assume?

In 1942, the mayor of Osterwick, my hometown, reported to German authorities a fellow townsman who happened to be a Jew married to a Mennonite woman. This Jew, who had spent his whole life with Mennonites and even spoke Plautdietsch, was arrested and killed. For a few months my own family lived in the house of this family. It was known as the Judenhaus. Recalling that experience fills me with the same ominous feeling Anna Sudermann expressed when she discovered the free clothing she received from the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle distribution center that came from the Jews killed at Babi Yar in Kiev.

How much guilt and condemnation is shared by those Mennonites who witnessed and observed or benefited from the Holocaust in their midst?

Gerhard Rempel is professor emeritus of history at Western New England University. This is a much-condensed version of his article, which appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review and is used with the permission of the author and MQR. The original article also includes extensive footnotes.

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